Once upon a time, I worked for the editorial office of a small publisher. The most fascinating, heart-breaking, and frustrating part of my day was when I had to read through manuscripts in the slush pile.
As many people know, the slush pile is what publishers call their collections of unsolicited query letters and manuscripts. These may have come from authors themselves or from literary agents who had no previous relationship with the press.
Because a lot of people don’t know exactly what happens once they send their manuscript to join the slush pile, I want to share my experience. Full disclosure: I am only describing my personal involvement with a single, small, nonfiction publisher. Different types of publishers likely treat their slush piles very differently.
When an author sent an unsolicited manuscript to the publisher, that manuscript ended up one of several places: an editorial assistant’s desk or an intern’s desk. From there, a staff member or an intern skimmed the query letter and did a quick, single-page analysis of who the author was, whether the manuscript sounded interesting, and if the manuscript would be a good fit for the press. These short summaries were then sent on to the main editor in the relevant subject area who would make the final decision on whether or not the press should move the manuscript forward in the publication process.
This procedure wasn’t wholly terrible for the author. Someone, often a peon like me, read every query letter and skimmed a chapter or two if one was available. For every declined manuscript, we sent a personalized rejection letter. If we liked a manuscript but thought it wasn’t a good fit for our press, we would also include the names of other publishers that might be interested in the piece. Very occasionally, editors would offer a few suggestions about how to improve the manuscript. One of the not-so-secret secrets at the press was that we wanted authors to succeed even if we didn’t think they would do well with us. Manuscripts from the slush pile did occasionally make it to publication, but these random queries resulted in publication much less frequently than other types of queries.
Slush pile processing made it difficult to deeply assess query letters and manuscripts. I had very little time to read through the materials and had to make very quick judgments about the quality and appropriateness of the work. This meant that I relied heavily on query letters to show me that authors knew how to present their book, knew it would be a good fit for the press, and knew how to write well. I always hope that I didn’t overlook world changing manuscript just because the author wrote a terrible query letter, but I can’t promise that I didn’t. There simply wasn’t time to dig deeper.
If you send a manuscript to slush pile, remember that it will probably end up in the hands of someone like me, someone who loves making books come to life, someone who wants author to succeed. (Even if the rejection letters can sound a bit robotic.)
Hopefully in the future I’ll be able to share a bit more about what information was helpful to me when reading query letters. If you have any questions or if there is a topic that you would like to hear more about, let me know, and I’ll see if I can incorporate it.
*Image Attribution: Endpapers of the original run of books in the Everyman’s Library (1906), art from William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, quote from the play Everyman.